President Donald Trump believes that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” So he started one.
Now the casualties are beginning to return home from the battlefield, and on Capitol Hill Wednesday, the people’s representatives presented some of them to Wilbur Ross, the president’s billionaire commerce secretary.
“Corn, wheat, beef and pork are all suffering market price declines … due to current trade policies,” complained Sen. John Thune (S.D.). “With every passing day, the United States loses market share to other countries.”
From Pennsylvania, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey cautioned that Kraft-Heinz may move its ketchup production to Canada to avoid retaliatory tariffs.
Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.) put in a plea over Coca-Cola’s rising aluminum can costs.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah warned that contracts have dried up for a steel fabricator in his state because of the tariffs, and “multibillion-dollar investments for new manufacturing plants that employ thousands of workers are also being put at risk.”
And those were just the Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee.
Ross, 80, wears eyeglasses and a hearing aid, but he didn’t need either to see and feel the bipartisan anger, and the fear among Republicans, about the damage Trump’s incipient trade war is already doing to steel users, seafood businesses, cherry and potato farmers, ranchers, uranium producers, newsprint users, brewers — you name it. Even lawmakers sympathetic to Trump’s aim of cracking down on China were aghast at the clumsy way the policy is being administered, the cumbersome exemption process, and the bizarre justifications of the policy that declare Canada a national-security risk but give favorable treatment to a Chinese company accused of espionage against the United States.
Trade war is hell. But the plutocratic commerce secretary was not troubled. Ross’ answer to the senators’ pleas for their constituents: Let them eat cake.
When Thune warned that the drop in soybean prices (caused by China’s retaliatory tariffs) was costing South Dakota soybean farmers hundreds of millions of dollars, Ross responded by saying he heard the price drop “has been exaggerated.”
When the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), told Ross the administration is woefully behind in granting exemptions, Ross said Wyden would learn otherwise if he did his “homework.”
Ross told Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) that he’s heard the rising cost of newsprint for rural newspapers “is a very trivial thing,” and he told Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) that it’s tough luck if small businesses don’t have lawyers to apply for exemptions: “It’s not our fault if people file late.”
Asked by Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) what the administration would do to help American farmers and ranchers, Ross told him “I’m not in detail familiar with all of the tools” and let the senator know that “we have no control over what another country does in retaliation.”
Ross further claimed to the lawmakers that the huge spike in steel prices “is not a result of the tariff” but of “antisocial behavior by participants in the industry” — behavior triggered by the tariffs. He justified tariffs on Canadian steel for national-security reasons, though the United States has a steel-trade surplus with Canada, by saying the concern is about transshipments of Chinese steel through Canada — yet he admitted “we do not have definitive data” about such shipments.
The cavalier performance — much like when he held a can of Campbell’s soup on TV and asked “who in the world is going to be bothered” by an increase in steel prices for the can — did not play well.
“The car isn’t a can of soup. It’s not a can of soup, Mr. Secretary,” said Hatch.
Toomey told Ross that “we’re picking winners and losers and probably resulting, in my view, in the risk of far more jobs lost than jobs are going to be gained.”
But what does Ross care? He’s a winner. Forbes reported on the eve of the hearing that, for most of last year, he maintained stakes in companies co-owned by the Chinese government, a shipping firm tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin (Ross shorted the company’s stock right before his connection to the business was reported last fall) and a bank reportedly caught up in the investigation being conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Asked whether he believed, as several of the senators did, that the United States is in a trade war, Ross was breezy: “As the president has often said, we’ve been at a trade war forever. The difference is that now our troops are coming to the ramparts.”
And they are beginning to take heavy casualties.
Dana Milbank is on Twitter: @Milbank. His column is distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group.